Kayla Harrison has accomplished nearly every athletic goal she’s made for herself. All that’s left is learning how to punch someone in the face.
Harrison, who just won her second gold medal in judo at the Rio Olympics, took a break from her whirlwind publicity tour to teach a clinic to youngsters at Chu To Bu on Oct. 28.
“I love (teaching kids),” the 26-year-old said. “I brought my gold medals and the kid’s faces light up when they put the gold medal around their neck.
“They start to dream big and hope big, and this is especially exciting to me because I’ve known (Chu To Bu owner) Paul (Jordan) for years. I grew up in (Middletown) Ohio and my old teammate Lorey (Edwards) is here now and we’ve come a long way, so it’s always fun to come back where home is.”
Harrison began training in judo at 6. She was introduced to the sport by her mother, who was a black belt. She rose through the ranks quickly and was competing in national events before she was a teenager. She won two national titles by the time she was 15.
Harrison captured gold medals at the Pan American Games (2011 and ’15), the 2010 World Championships in Tokyo and at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport.
“There’s no greater high on this Earth than representing the greatest country in the world on the highest stage of sport in the world,” she said. “To go and win a gold medal, you’re literally making your dreams come true. To be the first American to do it … you can’t wrap your mind around it. Every day I walk around in the clouds.”
Harrison downed Britain’s Gemma Gibbons in the 78-kilogram final in 2012, and she did it with a torn MCL suffered during training before the competition. She downed France’s Audrey Tcheumeo in the final of the same weight class Aug. 11 in Rio to win No. 2.
“Only like seven people in judo have repeated as Olympic champions,” Harrison said. “So now I’ve cemented myself as not only one of the greatest American judo players but as one of the greatest ever, period.
“Once you become Olympic champion, once you reach that goal, you lose a little bit of motivation. You wonder, ‘Is it worth it? Am I really going to do this all over again?’ But I can tell you it’s worth it. Second time around is twice as sweet.”
Harrison said she wasn’t ready for the “craziness that ensued” after winning her first gold medal, but was a little more prepared this time around.
“Everything from … I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated to being named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year to doing clinics and giving speeches,” she said.
The second gold medal was enough for the United States Judo Association to award Harrison the title of rokudan, or sixth-degree black belt, making her the youngest person in the U.S. to receive the promotion.
“It’s not official but I’m probably retiring from the sport of judo,” she said before her clinic at Chu To Bu. “I’m satisfied with my career. I’ve won everything there is to win — some of them twice — and there’s really nothing left for me to prove on the mat.”
But maybe there’s something to prove in the cage?
Harrison signed a contract Oct. 27 to become a commentator with the World Series of Fighting, one of the top feeder programs to the UFC, and will make her debut behind the microphone Dec. 31 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I also signed a contract that if I ever choose to do MMA, I’ll do it under their umbrella,” she said. “I started taking boxing (lessons), started doing jiu jitsu, just getting my feet wet and seeing if that’s something I want to do. It’s not something I’ve decided on yet.”
Harrison was a training partner of former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, who won the bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and has received advice from Rousey about the potential move to MMA.
“We used to live together,” Harrison said. “I think she’s done a lot for the sport of women’s MMA and she’s taken it to a level that would have taken another person a decade to accomplish and she did it in like six months. She’s in a league of her own now. She’s a sports icon and people are watching her every move now.
“What’s good for Ronda is good for judo, what’s good for Kayla is good for judo and what’s good for judo is good for both of us.”
One of the reasons Harrison may be able to duplicate Rousey’s success is because judo is a martial art that focuses on standup and ground work.
“It’s probably the best base (martial art) you can have in my opinion,” Harrison said. “You are learning how to take someone down and you’re learning how to submit them on the mat.
“Whereas if you’re a wrestler, you can learn to take someone to the ground all day but you don’t know how to finish them, or if you’re a boxer you can punch people all day but when you get to the ground you don’t know what to do, and even in jiu jitsu — they do some standup — but most of their focus is on the ground.
“So I really feel judo gives you a head start because you know a little bit of top game and a little bit of bottom game. You just have to learn how to punch people.”